Writing, life, politics

What’s This We, Kemosabe?

There’s a lot of talk now about the coalition government move to raise the cap on university tuition fees. For what’s it’s worth, I don’t know what the solution to university funding is, although I do feel that the emphasis on getting 50% of the population to go to a university simply to do a degree, any degree, is seriously missing the point1.

Anyhow, yesterday I read a piece in the London Evening Standard by their City Editor Chris Blackhurst (who’s perhaps a little older than me, but probably a fellow Generation Xer), in which he strongly opposed the raising of the tuition fees cap. It’s a good, fairly written, and passionate piece, but he managed to completely rub me up the wrong way with one particular angle that he was taking. Here’s the relevant bits (emphasis mine):

In our days, as I recall, we never had this double-whammy worry. We got a grant from the local council and we spent it. If we wanted more, we got casual work, we asked the bank manager or our parents, or both.

We weren’t bothered about being saddled with heavy debts when we graduated: what jobs we would end up doing and, more to the point, how much they paid, never dominated our thinking. When we did get jobs, we were able to join the property ladder and to take out mortgages — we did not have a sizeable loan already hanging over us.

How can we do this? We, the people that enjoyed free education, that basked in the lengthy post-war prosperity of our parents’ generation and the expansion of the university system? How dare we turn round now and tell our children to pay so much?

And that dilemma is not one they should face. It’s not one that we had to confront and neither should our successors. Our hypocrisy in this regard is appalling. Shame on us.

Of course, upon reading that, my deep, gut reactions was: what’s with this “we” shit? You might have gone to university Chris, but I didn’t, and neither did hardly anyone I knew2. I just didn’t come from the sort of background3 where people went to university, and as a result I was frankly too scared to go.

People seem to be harking back to a “golden age” where everyone got to go to university for free, but there never was such a golden age. Some people (ten percent maybe, with a disproportionate number of them coming from good middle-class backgrounds) were given free university educations, paid for by the taxes of a whole bunch of people whose own children weren’t going to go to university.

Taxing the poor to educate the rich seems to me neither fair nor progressive, and now that the poor have decided that they’d quite like to go to university too, it’s become horribly apparent that it’s going to need more money.

Like I said, I don’t know the solution. But let’s not kid ourselves about how great it was in the past, because it wasn’t.

1People say this will enable those people getting degrees to earn more money. But how? And why? The way to help everyone in the country earn more money is to train them to provide goods and services the the rest of the world wishes to purchase. But historically, the reason why people with generic liberal-arts degrees earned more money was because in an era when only 10% of people got a degree, possession of a degree would take you straight into the top 10% of management jobs, where you would be a highly paid “chief” bossing around nine lowly paid “indians”. Those liberal-arts degrees made their possessor’s richer, but they didn’t make the country any richer. If we succeeded in getting 50% of people to have some sort of generic degree that won’t mean 50% of all jobs will now be highly-paid managerial positions. It will simply mean that if you want a top 10% highly-paid managerial position, you’ll need at least a masters degree, if not a Phd. So I fear we risk spending huge amounts of money and saddling kids with massive debts, only for them to end up doing the same 20-30k generic white collar jobs that they would have ended up doing thirty years ago, except that then they’d have started them at 16 instead of 21.

2There were 250 people in my year at school. Of those, 16 (6%) stayed on to do A Levels. Most of them failed those A Levels. I know of at least one person who went to a university or polytechnic to do a degree level course (Lawrence, who went to the University of Lancaster to do maths). I think one, perhaps two max, of the girls went to a university as well. And my friend Stuart who left school after O Levels and got a job in a bank later went back to College to get a BTEC National Diploma in computing, and then, on the strength of that, went to Bristol Polytechnic (now the University of the West of England). So that’s somewhere between 0.4% and 1.6% going to university or polytechnic.

3At the time I got to 18, I knew of only one person in my family, ever, who’d gone to university, and that was a great-grandfather (my mother’s, father’s father, who was quite well off, but then did for his family by dying young of TB). Other than that, of my mother, my father, my brother, my two older cousins, my two uncles and my three aunts, my three great-aunts, and my four grand-parents, not one had been to university. That’s not to say that they were stupid, or even ill-educated. Both my mother and my uncle Alan were teachers (two-year and three-year teaching certificates respectively), my father was a surveyor (part-time Higher National Certificate in Mining Surveying), my uncle Gerry was a policeman, my auntie Ruth was a nurse, and my auntie Jean got very high up in the civil service. Since then, my two younger cousins have both got degrees and my uncle Alan got an Open University degree. But at the time, university seemed a scary place full of better educated kids from posh schools – so I went to a local college and got a BTEC (in cartography and surveying).


  1. Ian O'Rourke

    Okay, like you, I don’t know what the solution is either. I also feel the issue of everyone going might be part of the problem. Who knows. We are on the same wavelength in some ways.

    But I can’t help but feel the essential argument that annoyed you is a bit twisted. You see, your statement is wrong. Yes there wasn’t a Golen Age when where everyone went to university, but there certainly was a golden age when everyone could.

    Now, the fact that some people didn’t take advantage of it for whatever reason, due to lacking the grades or, even worse, having them and just letting provinsial thinking and fear stop them isn’t overly a fault of the system. You could have went to. You could have taken advantage of our generations advantage.

    You didn’t, for reasons that seem to be related to your background. You could have though, grades allowing (but that’s the same when you’re paying).

    As for the middle class argument? Not sure it holds water. The advantage of the system for GenX was not only did you get your course fees paid, chances are if your parents were on a low income you got a grant to go. You got paid to go.

    I’m not saying we can go back to that. At the same time, that option was open to you (grades allowing).

    • Jonny Nexus

      Yes, the option was open to me. I didn’t quite get the grades (I got CDE, when I needed to get BCD to go to the university I had actually applied for). But by the time I got to the exams I’d already (a few months previously) decided to not go to university, but to instead go to a local college where I could get in on the strength of my O’Levels (it was a course for 16 and up). So I probably wasn’t trying that hard in the exams.


      It’s difficult to answer. I have spent quite a lot of time now wondering why. Basically, I was quite introverted, and very lacking in confidence, and had been bullied quite badly at school by all the “popular” kids.

      I was basically scared that University would be a total social nightmare and that I’d be ostracised and isolated. School had been bad; I figured university, with a bunch of kids from middle-class areas would be even worse. (And yes, I know now that this wouldn’t have been the case).

      I also had supposed “friends” at school “candidly” advising me (for my own good of course!) not to go to university, telling me that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the social life.

      The teachers then made it worse, because all they ever seemed to say about university was, “It’s great, it’s wild, it’s a continuous party, party, party!” which was exactly what I didn’t need to hear. It was all about parties and drinking and all the stuff where I figured I’d be exposed as a complete loser.

      The funny thing is, I don’t recall anyone ever asking me why I didn’t want to go. They all just told me that I should want to go in tones of “anyone who doesn’t get excited at the thought of three years drinking and partying with really popular, cool, good-looking people must be a complete loser!”

      Which just made me feel like more of a loser.

      I always say that someone could have persuaded me to go with one conversation:

      Them: Why don’t you want to go?

      Me: Because I’m not in to partying and stuff.

      Them: You don’t have to be into partying and stuff. They’ll be loads of people there you aren’t into partying and stuff. What are you into?

      Me: [embarrassed] I play roleplaying games, you know Dungeons and Dragons.

      Them: Great. They’ll be a gaming society. Join that the first week, and you can spend three years playing Dungeons & Dragons with people just like you. You’ll have a ball!

      Me: What? People who play Dungeons & Dragons go to university?

      Him: Yeah. What else are you into?

      Me: Science fiction.

      Him: Cool. You can join the science fiction club too!

      Me: They’ll be a science fiction club???

      It might sound really bizarre to say it now, but I honestly had no idea whatsoever that geeky-nerdy-loser people who read SF and played D&D went to university. I thought university was only for party people, because that’s all anyone ever said about it.

      I did end up getting pushed into applying to unversity, but I ended up applying for courses I didn’t particularly fancy doing in universities close enough that I could have commuted from home. That was so I could avoid the “dreaded social life” and still keep in contact with my friends, but part of me knew that being a sort of “day student” would just make me even more of an isolated freak. So I ended up doing cartography at college.

      And so in the end, that’s why I didn’t go.

      As to this:

      “But I can’t help but feel the essential argument that annoyed you is a bit twisted. You see, your statement is wrong. Yes there wasn’t a Golen Age when where everyone went to university, but there certainly was a golden age when everyone could.”

      You’re right. My argument is a bit twisted. But I would ammend your statement to say:

      “There was a Golden Age where everyone could go to university, but it only worked because due to social and cultural legacy issues, the vast majority of people didn’t go.”

      But now the genie’s out of the bottle. If I was eighteen now, I’d know that university wasn’t just for good-looking, popular, posh party people. So I’d want to go. And so do a whole load more people.

      And I desperately want everyone (not 50%) in this country to get educated. But it’s got to be the right skills, not just any arbitrary skills. So we’ve got to get away from this notion that:

      – Someone with a degree, in anything, even if they have no particular skills, is clever.

      – Someone without a degree, even if they have a fistful of other qualifications and a whole host of skills, is stupid.

      Which is how it sometimes feels. (People sometimes seem to find it quite hard to believe that I haven’t got a degree).

  2. Ian O'Rourke

    Well we agree. I just wanted to make sure we were on the same understanding that the golden age did exist in terms of the ‘opportunity being out there’. I realise it didn’t get taken, probably by a vast amount of people, due to cultural bias.

    As I say, whatever was surrounding me at the time, just happened to be more supporting I guess. Despite being the first one to go, I never got any ‘that is not for us son’ type arguments. I never encountered anyone who did, but I’m told it happened.

    As for careers advisors in school, well, they are always a strange bunch.

    My point of issue with GenX careers advice (born 1971) as I saw it was the focus on A levels. I didn’t do A levels. I did a BTEC Diploma in Computer Studies which was the best thing I could have done, then a degree in IT (still repeating some BTEC stuff in the final year).

    I do agree that the degree route for everyone isn’t correct. I believe this is shown by drop out rates. Also, I was doing transformation projects in a council call centre not so long ago, I was surprised to find a core of those answering calls had degrees. Now, that I would consider a waste of their time and public funds!

  3. Ian O'Rourke

    Of course, as someone has pointed out to me today, the golden age might have been very narrow. I’m specifically talking very late eighties through the majority of the nineties.

    I can’t really comment before or after that!

  4. Jonny Nexus

    Also, I was doing transformation projects in a council call centre not so long ago, I was surprised to find a core of those answering calls had degrees.

    Yeah, that’s it exactly. The did a degree in nothing-in-particular, expecting that to qualify them to be the manager of the call-centre, only to find that everyone else had also done a degree in nothing-in-particular and they couldn’t all get to be the manager.

    Of course, what they needed to have done was a degree in something-specific that enabled them to create a specific good or service, where they could have worked alongside a whole bunch of people who also had degrees in something-specific creating genuine wealth.

    That’s what really worries me about there being so much emphasis on doing a degree and so little emphasis on what that degree is in.

    Doing degrees in nothing-in-particular is a zero-sum game. It won’t increase the size of the pie, only potentially your share of it, and only then if you’ve got the degree and other people haven’t. You can only win if others lose.

    But if people take degrees in something-specific, then everyone can take those degrees, and they can all still win.

    If that all makes sense! 🙂

  5. Ian O'Rourke

    Makes perfect sense. All degrees aren’t equal by a large margin.

  6. John

    You mention a lot of further education certificates (eg BTEC HNC, HND, teaching) and institutions (colleges, polytechnics) that have over the past 20 years been become degrees when the institutions became universities.

    A degree is now just short hand for “further education”, rather than academic study for a career in academia. Even nursing is now taught at institutions classed as universities. So universities now include places that would have been called colleges then, and many schools are now called colleges and even academies.

    It is the skills that are important, not the names of the certificates or institutions.

    A company I work for is recruiting and a lot of candidates straight out of university just don’t have the skills that are needed at the moment. At the moment the company can afford to recruit but not spend a year training someone.

    • Jonny Nexus

      Yeah, it’s true that lots of things that weren’t degree level subjects now are. Which is good in that it’s giving a fair prominence to vocational qualifications. It was something I thought of mentioning in my original post, but didn’t in an attempt to stay on the subject.

      But it does link into another aspect, which is that there is perhaps a feeling now that if a qualification isn’t a degree then it’s not worth having, part of the “a degree, any degree” thing. Which is fine for things like two-year Higher National Diplomas, which have been padded out into three-year BScs, but less so for things like apprenticeships, which are perhaps now seen as not worthy.

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